Thursday, September 22, 2011

Congregational singing by any means necessary

In my response to comments on my last blog post I wrote: I am neither a luddite nor a purist -- I am not arguing against technology nor for a certain repertoire. I am the Malcolm X of worship music: congregational singing by any means necessary!
In my work on congregational singing (both academic and practical) I want to avoid the sad and absurd situation that afflicts so many churches: internal division over musical tastes. The idea that folks fight pitched battles over music genres and traditions, choice of instruments and equipment etc. would be farcical if it were not so tragic.

A horn section and a medieval church.
I believe that many of these problems result from people loosing sight of the simple fact that the purpose is to enable a group of people to sing together. This is not to trivialize this act of worship. I believe this simple act of singing together is actually a profound spiritual activity. I argue elsewhere that singing together is a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church, by which I mean the act of singing together is one of the things we do which makes us who we are and that we should do it. Lets start all our discussions and worship planning, all our song writing and hymn choosing with this simple question: how can we get people to sing together?

This is why I don't care what means you use. You can use a pipe organ, an electric guitar, digereedoo or a symphony orchestra--it doesn't matter to me. You can sing Palestrina or Chris Tomlin, Handel or Kirk Franklin-- I don't care a hoot. I have been involved in all kinds of church music over the course of my life and to suggest there is "a right way" to do it goes against all of my experience (I have included a couple of examples for your amusement).

If we ask, "how can we get people to sing together?" The answer will not be monolithic. The answer will change with the skills of the musicians and the availability of instruments (or no instruments). The solution will be different as you move from one congregation to another; one worship space to another; one service to another.

It is important to realize I am not talking about all the music that happens in and around church. We have choral anthems and solos, instrumental pieces for meditation and prayer, concerts of sacred music and CCM artists. All of these bring glory to God and have their own internal logic that governs the performance aesthetic. I am not talking about all music -- I am only talking about congregational singing.

In this blog I am reporting on one experiment in leading congregational singing. I do not mean for  Red Team  (currently playing acoustic music in a white mid-western Methodist church) to be in anyway normative for other church musicians. I doubt there will be many other groups and congregations that will lead singing with a tuba, accordion and guitar combo! This is what happened last Sunday (with random percussion from my 5-year old).
Red Team - I Hunger and I Thirst  (Click to listen)
But I think the question we are asking--how do we unite a community of dissimilar people in singing God's praise?-- is (or should be) normative for congregational singing.

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